"You can't breathe, you can't sleep," said White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, as she described the stress of worrying about an aging parent who needs assistance, and explained the comfort she gets from knowing her own parents now have a live-in caregiver.
Without that caregiver, Jarrett says that she would have had to leave the Obama administration and move back to Chicago.
Yet the three million professional, long-term home caregivers today are faced with a rapidly aging Baby Boomer population and a lack of adequate support, compensation or respect. Yesterday in Washington, the National Domestic Workers Alliance held what they called a Care Congress, an event where they introduced a campaign to "transform long-term care." The campaign is designed to push legislative changes to Medicare and Medicaid—creating jobs by increasing the amount of money eligible people can spend on at-home care and allowing a rapidly aging population to avoid institutionalization.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis praised the work of home care workers—a group comprised primarily of immigrant women: "In Spanish, we call these women 'luchadoras', because they are fighting. They are strong women who fight and let nothing stand in their way."
Solis spoke directly to the audience full of caregivers, saying, "You are their friend, you are someone who listens, you give so much of yourself—physically as well as emotionally. You are professionals, and you should be treated as such."
Workers in California experienced a victory earlier this month when a key state senate approved the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, legislation that the NDWA says would extend "basic, humane labor protections to thousands of nannies, caregivers, and housecleaners and improves the quality of care for California's families." The law can also increase wages for workers—a mixed blessing, since so many elderly are on fixed incomes. New York State passed the first such law in the nation last year
Still, Solis says, millions of home caregivers survive on poverty wages, with median earnings of $17,000 a year, and they're vulnerable to harassment and exploitation.
The NDWA campaign has five points: Create more, good care jobs; create labor standards and improve the quality of existing jobs; train and allow for career development of workers; develop a new visa for care workers and provide a path to citizenship, and support families who need care.
One speaker noted that one-fifth of people currently living in nursing homes do not want to—and that reforming Medicaid to pay for home care would be a superior choice.
Ironically, in this week's budget and debt-ceiling debate, Republicans are pushing for deep cuts to funding for Medicaid and Medicare—which would have the likely effect of reducing how much money the ill and elderly can spend on home care, which in turn could leave caregivers jobless.
According to the Center for Disease Control, the majority of the 1.5 million Americans requiring home care are white women over the age of 65. The CDC expects that number to skyrocket to 27 million over the next 40 years, as Baby Boomers age and the 65-plus crowd becomes one-fifth of the US population.